When Sithembiso Nkala* died last month at the age of 46 in a small Bulawayo township, the red flag mounted at the gate of her uncle’s house to announce the funeral flapped against the cool early winter breeze for almost two weeks.
The Nkala family had to wait until enough money was raised before she could finally be laid to rest. They solicited funds from well-wishers to buy a cheap coffin and pay municipality cemetery fees.
Nkala’s case is not isolated.
In April, a municipality councillor in Bulawayo had to make passionate pleas to residents to contribute to the funeral expenses of a widow who lived with several grandchildren who had not been attending classes because she could not afford tuition fees.
Families here make sure a funeral gathering does not last more days than necessary because of the costs that come with feeding mourners.
At funeral parlours, the lowest priced coffin costs about US$300 — more than a civil servant’s salary — while backyard carpenters peg a cheap coffin at about US$100, forcing many families to abandon funeral policies altogether.
It is at funerals that the poverty of families comes into full public glare.
Because Nkala had no funeral policy and did not belong to any burial society, the family needed anything up to US$200 to ensure she was given a decent send-off. No one in the family has formal employment.
“We couldn’t bury her on time as we would have wished,” a family representative said.
Although people living in townships have, for years, contributed small amounts to neighbours’ funerals, this has not been enough to meet costs. Most of the money goes towards feeding mourners.
In the past, a family member of the deceased would go house-to-house collecting maize meal but with the cost of the country’s staple also affected by price hikes, that tradition is now history.
Coupled with the absence of once thriving burial societies and incomes corroded by inflation, deaths have brought fresh headaches. In recent years, funeral policy premiums have not been spared the wrath of daily price increases.
Last month, the Funeral Services Group — Zimbabwe, which provided funeral policies considered affordable by many, announced it was shutting down its operations without providing reasons.
Policy holders were told their accounts were being migrated to another underwriter but at increased monthly premiums. This raised fears that amid poor regulation of the sector, policyholders would be left with no recourse.
Nyaradzo, one of the country’s leading funeral service companies, announced a 300% increase in premiums in February, citing a tough operating environment.
The highest Nyaradzo premium now costs ZW$2 025 (about US$5 or R75 on the illegal parallel market) per adult.
But the premium is alternatively pegged at a permanent US$10 per family member because the greenback offers a stable cushion against inflation shocks, highlighting the difficulty of doing business not just in the funeral sector but across all economic activities.
According to documentation from Nyaradzo, the company’s cheapest funeral cover costs ZW$1 742 which is pegged at US$7 without regard to the prevailing official exchange rate, a Nyaradzo sales representative said.
Retired civil servants such as Methembe Ncube have found it particularly tough.
During his time as a secondary school headmaster, the company through which he had a funeral policy deducted premiums from the Salaries Service Bureau, a department responsible for government employees’ remuneration.
Since retiring five years ago, he says his pension is so little he has not been able to service his policy, which has since lapsed despite monthly payments. “When I die I won’t get any assistance. The only assured assistance will come from people’s goodwill.”
Ncube said he has children living and perhaps working in South Africa. He is not sure because they have not communicated for years.
Doves Funeral Services, founded more than a century ago, has said it has seen clients withdrawing policies because they can no longer afford the premiums. Others are only withdrawing specific services such as buses for transporting mourners.
“Just like any other business operating in our environment, the rate of inflation continues to affect our business and we are consistently seized with initiates to hedge against inflation,” said Doves’ spokesperson, Innocent Tshuma.
“Now and then we do receive requests for donations with regards to funeral services at zero cost to the bereaved family, or at a significant discount. As a responsible corporate citizen we have initiated rendering assistance where it is needed.”
The Nkala family’s experience is a tale of extreme opposites when compared to families with relatives in Zimbabwe’s diaspora; remittances have meant quick burials, easing the emotional strain for bereaved families.
When David Gama* died last month at the age of 80, the opulence of the funeral resembled a wedding feast. There was a giant marquee, a professional catering team, buses and a mile-long procession befitting a state funeral, thanks to his children and grandchildren scattered around the world.
Despite this public show of private wealth, the anticipated funeral sector riches have proven to be elusive.
In Bulawayo’s Kelvin industrial area, where small funeral parlours once thrived, businesses have been replaced by activities such as sewing and brick moulding.
Susan Mlotshwa, who once ran a small parlour, said she could no longer sustain the operation because families who were provided with services on credit routinely failed to pay.
“The business was doing well in the early years when we started around 2015 despite the economy being bad,” Mlotshwa said. “Our mission was to ensure families concentrated on the funeral arrangement without worrying too much about money but this failed because many just ignored our payment requests. You would sound cruel demanding money for a funeral. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Mlotshwa now survives by selling groceries from the back of her car.
Increase in pauper burials
The hardships facing the funeral business have spawned more pauper burials, according to hospital officials, with families increasingly failing to claim the bodies of relatives because they cannot afford funeral expenses.
Early this year, the United Bulawayo Hospitals said that in the past four months of 2021, 90 pauper’s burials were conducted. One official told a regional newspaper that stillbirths were receiving the most pauper burials because the mothers “gave false addresses so that they cannot be traced”.
“The trend of pauper burials has not changed over the years. Stillbirths are given normal graves and at times relatives may not feel it is worth it to pay for the grave, especially those who may have financial problems,” said Nesisa Mpofu, the city’s spokesperson.
According to the Bulawayo municipality, despite the difficulties of holding a traditional funeral, few people are choosing cremation even though it is a cheaper option.
“The city has tried to encourage the public to embrace cremation, however cultural and religious beliefs have hampered this. The failure to embrace cremation has seriously affected sustainability and availability of burial space in the city,” Mpofu said.
The shocks in the funeral sector have also been felt by cross-border transporters who repatriate bodies from countries such as neighbouring South Africa.
“Some families now prefer to bury their relatives in South Africa where that relative died because of the costs involved in bringing the body to Zimbabwe,” said Nkululeko Mpofu, a cross-border transporter.
Repatriating a body from South Africa to Zimbabwe is expensive, with one family recently being quoted R34 000 (about US$2 200), but with further shopping around, they found a “cheaper” transporter at R24 000 (about US$1 600).
With funeral service companies struggling because of families failing to raise such amounts, illegal cross-border transporters known as omalayitsha have emerged.
“We are also struggling. There is no business,” Mlotshwa said, referring to a sector that was once considered the safest business bet because, as some put it, “people will always die.”
*Names changed to protect identities.